This is the name of a communion of four settlements in Svanetia acknowledged as the topmost highland permanently inhabited locality in Europe. There are 70 families living here today, two to three hundred people living here, as estimated by different sources.
There is a common saying: “he who hasn’t seen Svatetia hasn’t seen Georgia”. It may be not a perfectly correct statement, given Georgia is a diverse place with every region colourful and unique in its own way. Nevertheless, this is a special spot, one may say, the quintessence of Svanetia. It is situated 2200 above the sea level, at the foot of Shkhara, one of the highest mountains of the Caucasus (5193 meters). Even in the hottest summer period the Shkhara peak is covered with snows and usually hidden in clouds.
A bit of history
The oldest dwelling houses date back to the 9-th century, but according to archeological evidence, there used to be much earlier settlements here. The uniqueness of the highland community and the preserved original monuments of architecture gave grounds for making this area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the reign of Queen Tamara she had her summer residence here.
For a long time this region was geographically isolated from the rest of the Georgian territory, which served to preserve specific traditions and customs. The local population are svans (there are 15 to 30 thousand of them according to various estimates). They have their own language, which gives them reason to consider themselves a separate people. And although they all know Georgian, they continue to communicate in their own language at home.
There is a characteristic unwritten law of blood vengeance (litsvri) surviving to this day, certainly in a "milder" version, but rare incidents still do occur. And in some periods of history, blood vengeance exhausted Svanetia even more than the attacks of external enemies. There was a curious case: local people, having learned that a mighty prince from the Dadeshkeliani clan was going to take their village under his control, invited him themselves. He was seated at the table, with a gun aimed at the seat, and they all pulled together at the rope tied to the trigger. As tradition demanded, it was necessary to take revenge on the murderer, but to revenge the whole village was no go.
Climate and weather
The climate is continental, damp. As the settlements are situated high in the mountains, the winter here is long, cold and harsh, and the summers are short and warm, sometimes hot. The Caucasian ridge is a shield from cold winds, the snow going off here more quickly and the spring coming earlier. The average annual temperature is about +6 degrees: -6 in winter, +16 in the middle of summer. It is only hot in the summer, and just in the sun, the night temperature dropping below +10 C. In winter, the roads to the distant villages are swept out for several months.
How to reach the spot?
Although there is no good road (only a primer), it is quite possible to get here from different regions of Georgia. But first you need to get to Mestia, the main city of Svanetia, and then cover 45 kilometers in an off-roader. This part of the way, despite a short distance, will take about two to three hours (according to experts). A two-way taxi will cost 200 GEL ($ 80). If you have arrived on an off-road car, you can get there by yourself in about the same time, though it will need a lot of roadcraft.
There are several ways of getting to Mestia:
• from Tbilisi (the Natakhtari airport) and there are regular flights from Kutaisi: small aircrafts for 15 passengers with up to 15 kilos of luggage permitted for each;
• by shuttle van from Tbilisi (the station near Didube metro station), 30 GEL, the trip will take 8 to 9 hours;
• by taxi from Tbilisi – $200;
• by train Tbilisi-Zugdidi, then shuttle van;
• from Batumi there are direct shuttle vans once or twice a day, 25 GEL, taking 5 to 6 hours, or first to Zugdidi (with more frequent shuttle vans);
• from Kutaisi by shuttle van (they may take a direct road, but it is a more common practice to take the one freshly-repaired, via Zugdidi);
• one may get directly to the Ushguli communion from Kutaisi by the Lower-Svanetian Route, which needs a good off-roader, an excellent driver and passengers with strong nerves.
Where do you lodge?
In high-mountain villages you can spend the night in family houses, some of them being also proudly called hotels or inns, in fact they are rooms in the dwellings of local residents. The lodging is presented by several guest houses, with quite comfortable rooms, with shared kitchens and bathrooms. The price is about $ 10 per person, implying breakfast or three meals a day for a surcharge of ~ $ 5-15. Here, as in all of Svanetia, it is better to rent guesthouses with meals included. You can also put your tent on the territory of the guesthouse, as a rule, it costs about 10 GEL per tent. It makes a sort of a camp implying the use of toilets and kitchens.
Places of interest
Each of the four settlements has its own memorial places.
In Zhibiani you may explore an original twinned tower. There is Blessed Virgin Mary Assumption temple (Lamaria) on top of a hill in a distance На отдельном холме чуть поодаль стоит храм Успения Пресвятой Богородицы (Ламария), painted with 10-12-th centuries frescoes based on the scenes from the legends of Amirani, the hero of the Georgian epic. The temple and the nearby tower are surrounded by a wall, all the building resembling a castle. There is a small St.George church known as Dzhgrag not far from Lamaria. Its beautiful carved door is of particular interest. There are also two private museums (you can see some interesting icons and ethnographic exhibits there).
Chvibiani may be regarded as the community centre: there is a temple there, several towers, a museum, and several guesthouses to stay for a night.
There are two castles in the unique museum village of Chazhashi. The settlement of Nizhni (Lower) is situated on top of a small hill. In one of the towers there is a memorial to honour the four residents of the settlement who fought in the Great Patriotic War. The settlement of Verkhni (Upper) is higher on the mountain slope. Sans believe it to be the summer residence of Queen Tamara, and they are sure she was buried here. The local towers are somewhat different from those traditional in Svanetia.
In Murkmeli, the fourth settlement of the community, there are two temples (Our Savior’s and St. Barbara’s), and scores of towers.
The glacier on the southern slope of the Shkhara makes the main source of the beautiful Inguri river. If you climb to the Upper Chazhash Castle (about 200 meters), despite a rather tiring climb, with the rarefied air - the view of the Ushguli Valley, the Shkhara and other surrounding mountains from there will make you forget the fatigue.
You can observe magnificent views also sitting in the Koshki (Cats) café in Chvibiani.
In the settlement of Khe (the Kala community), in 6 kilometers, there is one of the most venerated local churches, the famous Lagurka – the St. Quiricus and Julitta temple dating back to the 11-th century. There is a typical citadel of a house under it. The settlement is situated in an avalanche zone, so there is only one family still living there.
Near the settlement of Bogreshi (the Ipari community) there is a lonely Tower of Love – this being the name given to it by the local people with the appropriately ascribed romantic legend of a girl whose beloved man had perished. In answer to her request her father built her a separate tower where she lived alone to the end of her life.
You can go to the Laptar Pass; a one-day route to the Shkhara glacier is popular; It is worth to take a walk along the four-kilometer stretch of road through the gorgeous canyon towards Mestia. The three-day walking route from Zhabeshi (Mulakhi community) to Ushguli is popular, it can be started from Mestia.
You may rent horses from the local people and make all the routs at once. You will pay about $15 to 20 per horse rented for each of you for 5 to 6 hours.
Perhaps, most people will find the Svan cuisine more plain than in other regions of Georgia. This can be explained by the ascetic nature of the Svans' life, and the climate. Still, the national dishes are tasty and curious.
We would recommend tasting kubdari (a closed flat cake with meat, spices and originally even with hemp, but this kind cannot be found now, chwishtari (or chvizhdari, a corn cake with suluguni cheese), mertsli (potatoes with suluguni cheese), ziskhora (pork blood sausage with spice.) Svan honey is famous for its useful qualities.Svan salt is just a legendary product: from generation to generation a special tradition is passed through the female line to grind salt with spices growing in these places (at least 8 ingredients).
Tips for tourists
• The best option for a trip is to go in a group of three or four and rent a jeep with a driver well acquainted with the local roads.
• One should understand that svans are a special kind of people: they are friendly, but they are reserved and rather reticent; you will be hospitably received, fed, but do not expect the feast and fun, as in other regions of Georgia.
• As everywhere in the mountains, do not forget about warm clothes (even in summer) and comfortable shoes.